IIt may seem hard to believe, but it took a while for Black Violin to realize its representational power.
The Grammy-nominated duo – comprised of string-shredding virtuosos Kev Marcus and Wil Baptiste – have been fusing classic technique and hip-hop flair since 2004, but in the beginning the guys were more focused on the grind than being outliers in their musical field. Gaining notoriety for covering hip-hop tunes and winning over the notoriously judgmental crowds for Show at the Apollon, they were just trying to make a lot of money and land gigs as touring or studio fiddlers for Alicia Keys or Kanye West. But as their spotlight grew, the changes in who showed up at their concerts caused shifts in their outlook.
“Over the years, we started seeing people come to us with their kids,” says Marcus. “[We’re] to see that part of our population that is fundamentally proud of how much we have grown over the past few years. [It got us] think about the power of what we do; the representation.”
“I mean, we knew that, of course,” he adds. “The whole thing is, we’re black people playing the violin, and nobody sees it. Nobody approaches it like we do. But suddenly [you] start having kids, and you start to see the responsibility that we have and try to use that as a good mechanism to make sure that every time someone comes to see the show, they get that message. You can do whatever you want to do. And if someone tells you you can’t do it, you should probably run to them, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
The band’s sonic blend of string arrangements with hip-hop beats has always stood out, but it took another step forward in 2019 with the release of Take the stairs, which earned the duo a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (despite a healthy amount of vocals). Black Violin captures the elegant majesty of their namesake instruments without ever getting caught sounding too traditional in a sleepy way.
Part of that comes from the wide range of experiences Marcus and Baptiste have had over the years. How many artists who have performed at the Kennedy Center with the National Symphony Orchestra have also opened for the Wu-Tang Clan and had their worldview influenced by Linkin Park?
Marcus credits Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda for showing Black Violin how to behave as professional musicians. Shinoda brought the duo into his side project Fort Minor and eventually took them on a world tour with Linkin Park. Citing the globetrotting tour as a highlight of his career, Marcus says the nu-metal band conducted their business in such a punctual, professional and friendly manner that it virtually eliminated any chance he and Baptiste would slack off. or become selfish holes.
Black Violin is currently on a massive tour, constituting a boatload of canceled dates in 2020 due to COVID. The band beefed up their live performance by expanding the live band to a five-piece unit (two violins, DJ, drummer, and a new keyboardist who adds “key-bass” to get that low-end rumble) and setting up a impressive synchro light show.
“The show is like an arena show that we put on in a theater. It’s super big,” Marcus says.
Beyond their own music, the guys have also ventured into composing for television and film in recent years, allowing them to stretch different creative muscles. Once they have completed their tour dates through May, the plan is to start working on a new album in the fall.
But as the years have shown at Black Violin, the goal should be bigger than just the music. That’s why they started the Black Violin Foundation three years ago – to give back even more. There are three main branches of the nonprofit organization: the James Miles Musical Innovation Grants, the Dreamer Instrumental Access Program, and the Dreamer Diversity Equity and Inclusion Grants. Named after the high school music teacher who nurtured the duo’s musical talents (taking them to summer camps, setting them up with private teachers, etc.), Marcus says the grants are intended to ” connect the dots” to allow students to continue their musical studies. education. This includes everything from paying for summer camps to getting an instrument for a child in need. The Dreamer Instrumental program partners with Cincinnati’s Baroque Violin Shop to source string instruments for young POCs.
The Black Violin Foundation’s Dreamer Diversity Equity and Inclusion grants attempt to get to the root of the problem even more directly, working directly with schools to try to create inclusive orchestra programs. Sometimes it’s as simple as identifying a school and donating an entire orchestra’s instruments to start a program.
“In the world of strings, only 2% of [professional musicians] are identified as black or [People of Color]says Marcus. ” This is the problem. So we’re just trying to work systemically and find ways to create more opportunities for young black and brown students to find a way to access classical music.”
One way or another, Black Violin will try to change the musical world for the better, whether through their energetic concerts or the unreleased notes that resonate in the long run. ♦
Black Violin • Thurs, March 3 at 7:30 p.m. • $35 to $58 • Martin Woldson Theater at Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • foxtheaterpokane.org • 509-624-1200